chapter 6, ephesus
end of the empire?
june 2, 2010
anyone ever read "the history of the decline and fall of the roman empire" by edward gibbon? probably not. me neither. but i did listen to a mouth-watering chunk of it on "books on tape" while driving through life along the LA freeways at the zenith of the american empire at the beginning of the 21st century. anyway, gibbon's masterpiece of interpretive modern history first published in 1776 is a sprawling, 6-volume account of the period of the roman empire after marcus aurelius, from 180 to 1453 AD, concluding in 1590. it conjectures about the behavior and decisions that led to the decay and eventual fall of the mighty and imperious roman empire in both the east and west. it first chronicles the fall of rome itself in the 5th century A.D. to the barbarian invaders from the north and east, while afterward it amasses centuries of history through the byzantium, holy roman eastern empire, and selcuk histories of asia minior, all the way through the muslim conquest of constantinople in 1453 and the early rule of the ottoman turks.
according to gibbon, the roman empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of moral certitude and spiritual strength among its citizens. they had become weak, "outsourcing" their duties to defend and exploit their empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the empire. romans, gibbon believed, had become weak because they became more and more unwilling and unable to live a tougher, "manly" military lifestyle. he further blames the degeneracy of the roman army and the praetorian guards. in addition, gibbon argues that christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the empire. he also believed its comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional roman martial spirit. lastly, like other enlightenment thinkers, gibbon held in contempt the middle ages as a priest-ridden, superstitious, dark age.
sound familiar? more on that later, my brothers and sisters.....
for now... da wife and i have bussed again through anatolia (central turkey), from the mineral-rich "travertines" of pamukkale to selcuk, the tourist gateway to the largest roman outpost in asia minor, the ancient city of ephesus. we've been programmed for a 24 hour trek through the best preserved classical city in the eastern mediterranean and through a "cliff's notes" version of ancient roman history and lifestyle in the 1st half of the first millennium A.D. of course, this area, also called "ionia" by the greeks, predates the romans by over a thousand years, and you can trace its history through legendary tales of its founding by androclus (a cryptic oracle tells him to look for the site indicated by 'the fish and the boar')... through king croesus of lydia (the richest man in the world about 600 BC)... through the persians, greeks (alexander in 334 BC), and finally through the romans (from around the time of ceasar and octavian augustus to ephesus' decline around 600 AD).
there are endless sites to see amidst the well-preserved ancient ruins: gymnasiums, brothels, decrepit city walls, libraries, colonnades, wide open market places, stone-hewn living quarters, christian churches, pagan temples, a 25,000 seat roman amphitheater, the remains of communal roman baths, and even... a men's latrine.
so i'm walking around ephesus with my indonesian mrs. it feels a little like a disneyland for the greek and latin-o-phile. there's even a disney-like "roman empire" show, with local actors playing the roles of emperor, queen, gladiator, plebe, cobbler, all the way down the line.
as always, i'm getting completely caught up in dates and history, just like i was back in miss bandiero's 11th grade history class. well, that was mostly american hisotry, but you hadda start somewhere, right?
but ay, here's the rub. as promised, i'm thinking as much about american empire as i am roman. specifically, i'm thinking about mr. gibbon's insight and explanation for the decline and fall of the great roman empire... and finding it frighteningly parallel to the current state of our american empire. no doubt, our 20th century, and now 21st century, american empire is the greatest in the history of mankind. with our cyber and post-industrial tentacles of the age of technology, the internet, and the global economy reaching omninously and lucratively around the entire planet, we have had more influence and more control over the the economies and politics of the world than any empire in history. the reach and scope of the current american empire simply dwarfs such predecessors as the greeks, romans, chinese, mongols, moghuls, autro-hungarians, british, soviets, or any other previous conglomeration of tyrant, government, religion, or nation-state. simply put, the power and influence of hollywood, wall street, and madison avenue have collectively hypnotized and seduced a good majority of the rest of the world. and sure, the muslim and chinese civilizations have been giving us a good recent "clash" or two, but what i'm most intrigued by... should i have the courage to admit it... is the end of the american empire.
i've been thinking about this for decades. why? why would a man born into the most privileged place and time in the history of mankind have such a morbid obsession? that's right! i was born in new york city in 1947 to middle class, aspiring jews, whose families had survived the holocaust and now had opportunities and privileges never imagined in the history of mankind. i had good food, a good education, good health care, wonderful personal and professional opportunities, and world-class information, in both quantity and quality, which no other citizen of any other empire ever had in recorded time. and while hungry children "were starving in china", africa, and all over the 3rd world, my family was going out to eat "chinks" (sorry, the sino-phobic, jewish-american word for chinese food in the new yawk suboibs of ike eisenhower and JFK), trotting into manhattan to see broadway shows whenever they felt like it, and vacationing in scenic upstate new york on lake george, or lake champlain, or in the adirondacks, or the appalachians... you get the picture: privilege and opportunity to the max.
but here's the question, my brothers and sisters: were, and are, my fat cat, fellow american citizens getting soft? weak? were/are they becoming arrogant and entitled? not willing to work the blue collar jobs that america's immigrants have always sweated and toiled over? are they "outsourcing" their work and their national defense oveseas? are they overextended? meddling their inperious tentacles in places where they were no longer welcome? had the muslim "barbarians", not only knocked once, but were they not training and threatening to knock again, in islamic madrassas all over the planet? were/are we americans winning hearts and minds beyond our borders? lining up peoples and nations in support of our american empire? or did one single man, at one single moment in history, make choices that have started to tilt our empire over the tipping point – towards its decline... and ultimate fall? did george w. bush squander the good will of the planet that america had after the 9/11 world trade center attacks and change that good will into hatred and doubt – with his/our country's invasion of iraq and afghanistan? do america's gods, gurus, and prophets trumpet the commercialism and materialism of another dark age? driven by comfort, laziness, celebrity worship, anger, entitlement, and privilege? where does the american empire stand right now?
of course, only history will tell. but history has been consistent and cruel enough before... to know that empires rise and empires fall. empires are all cyclical things. no one nation, people, or religion can predominate forever. as were the greeks, phoenecians, romans, selcuks, ottomans, mongols, moghuls, autro-hungarians, chinese, japanese, ad infinitum, so will be the americans. an "empire" simply can not last forever. just look over our shoulders. we can already feel the chinese in ascendance, breathing down our necks, eating up our debt, competing for dominance in economics, politics, world culture and influence. the time of the american empire, i believe, is in its wane, my brothers and sisters. "american empire" is in decline, has been in decline... no matter how many nationalists, red necks, patriots, or red, white, and blue believers want it to be otherwise. soon we will no longer have the great fortune to know that our language, our currency, our value system... is the one the rest of the world has to conform to. soon, we will have to make accomodations ourselves. as a nation. as a people. as you. as me...
a hard pill to swallow, you say? i'm just a whacked out, commie-leaning, dyed in the wool, jewish intellectual? what do i know about the world? about the forces, tides, and events that make history?
well, let's see. only time will tell, right? in the meantime, i'm not here, living my life waiting for the end of the american empire. i'm not holding my breath in fear of the invading chinese yen or the barbarian muslim hordes. i'm out here living my life, still one god-damned privilged 21st century american who can pretty much travel the planet at will, who can still go out and eat the best chinese-french-vietnamese-armenian-romanian-italian-mongolian meal almost anytime i want. i have a good job, a great place to live, a marriage that works, enough money not to complain.... i'm... as i always say, a pretty "lucky guy." "still crazy after all these years", as another poet has said about himself in his ever-growing years of "maturity", i'm more grateful now and more loving... than at any other time in my life.
but, american empire? roman empire? only 2000 years separate the two. history repeats itself. and travel allows you to see history's perspective every once in a while, if you're lucky.
i just wonder what relics and ruins will be left of the american empire 2000 years from now. will visitors to new york, if there still is a new york in the year 4010, look into the ground zero hole that was once the world trade center's twin towers, and remember the story of what made that hole. will 9/11 join the list of battles, triumphs, and defeats like marathon, gallipoli, and waterloo? will the humans of 4010 who live on the north american continent still be called citizens of the united stated of america? what will be standing where disneyland is now in anaheim? where the french qaurter is in new orleans? where the pentagon now is in washington d.c.?
when did the decline of the american empire begin? when did it fall?
let me know what you think.